For years, as a cruel and unfair byproduct of his struggles in the 2016 NBA Finals, Harrison Barnes became a punching bag. He wasn’t particularly effective as a primary scorer for the Dallas Mavericks and his lucrative contract deluded people into criticism that stretched well past reasonable. It blurred the lines between someone simply burdened by a miscast context and a player who’s likely a negative on-court impact across most (or all) settings.
Yet since being traded to the Sacramento Kings in February 2019, he’s been a rather good and valuable wing. Last season, he was brilliant in an auxiliary role and averaged 16.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 3.5 assists on career-high 62.6 percent true shooting (.497/.391/.830 split). He grew as a passer, with a career-best assist rate of 13 percent, and thrived playing more power forward than he had in recent years, a trend that’s exploded this season.
To open his 10th NBA year, Barnes has been nothing short of spectacular and is the leading reason Sacramento has stayed afloat at 2-2, currently tied for sixth in the Western Conference (yes, it’s far too early for this, I’m sorry). According to basketball-reference, 98 percent of his minutes are coming at the 4, a significant jump from 66 percent in 2020-21, the previous the high-water mark for his career.
The usage has bumped up to resemble his rate in Dallas and instead of his efficiency cratering like it did there for two and a half seasons, it’s spiked thus far. He’s averaging 26.8 points (tied for seventh league-wide), ten rebounds, and 2.3 assists on blistering 66.8 percent true shooting (.514/.515/.783 split).
After ranking fourth in shots per game a season ago at 11.1, he’s now second behind De’Aaron Fox at 17.5. That’s not merely a result of Sacramento bumping him up the hierarchy. Barnes is hunting more shots and taking advantage of more opportunities. Whereas a drive or jumper may have been a pass in prior years, they’re replaced by bravado-based field goals and methodical, crafty forays inside.
His .471 3-point rate is a career-high. He’s launching more than eight long balls per game and absolutely ripping through the nets, including a ludicrous, off-balance game-winner against the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday.
Barnes has largely excised the midrange from his scoring profile so far. For his career, 75 percent of his shots were threes or within 10 feet. Now, that number has jumped to nearly 93 percent in 2021-22. His shooting has been incredibly versatile, too.
He’s being deployed in pick-and-pops and stagger screens, and firing as a stretch big. When defenders provide airspace on dribble hand-offs, their fate is written. Against tight contests, he’s shown a knack for accelerating his release to remain unbothered by their presence. He’s even knocked down five of his 10 pull-up long balls, and they’re not just run-of-the-mill attempts. There’s some serious shot-making gusto featured in a few of his buckets.
After the most prolific outside shooting campaign of his career in 2019-20, the veteran swingman has topped it with a dynamite start. Look at all the different ways he’s succeeding en route to a 17-for-33 beginning beyond the arc.
When he does venture inside the arc, he’s applying his 6’8, 225-pound frame and functional mobility for advantages. His 41 percent rim frequency, according to Cleaning The Glass, ties a career-high from 2019-20. In a small sample, he’s done well to emphasize actually getting all the way to the rim rather than settling for short jumpers, even if he has the interior touch to hit those.
In conjunction with his equitable frame and mobility intersection, Barnes is touting considerable guile as a ball-handler. He’s busting out off-beat finishes around the hoop to dupe rim protectors and locking defenders into no-man’s land during his drives. The delightful game-winner punctuated his 22-point performance against the Suns, but it was preceded by a handful of pretty awesome creation reps for applause-worthy two-pointers.
He simply looks in control of whatever happens among a congested paint, knowing his size is a boon and affords him the discretion and patience many smaller ball-handlers may not enjoy. Shooting nearly 64 percent on twos isn’t viable long-term, though he didn’t stumble into that clip either. Newfound savvy is amplified by some luck.
Unless he rapidly became far and away the best long-range gunner in NBA history, Barnes will not drill 51.5 percent of his threes all year. He’s also probably not shooting this well inside the perimeter for an entire season. But a lot of what Barnes has showcased to this point is sustainable: the versatile jumper, the uptick in volume from deep, the cunning approach as a ball-handler. Those are all process-related aspects influencing the gaudy results.
Even when the latter falls back to earth, the former should still exist and allow Barnes to maintain a career year. His role and game have evolved substantially during his decade-long tenure in the league and this is another example, one that is quickly behooving himself and the Kings through four games.